Despite their outsize importance in the lives of anyone who comes into contact with our sprawling and Orwellian criminal justice system, elections for judges in New York City are sleepy affairs. Incumbent judges seeking re-election rarely face primaries. Candidates backed by the local Democratic Party are almost always assured victory.
One veteran Democratic operative and gadfly long opposed to party machines throughout the city is trying to change that. Gary Tilzer, angry that the Brooklyn Democratic Party’s handpicked candidates for civil court judge appeared to be coasting to victory without any challenges at all, gathered together a slate of five judicial candidates who will face down the party’s chosen contenders in a Democratic primary this September.
The insurgent campaigns, which have begun to garner some media attention, would offer Brooklyn voters choices they usually don’t have.
“I wanted to show what was really going on,” Tilzer tells the Voice. “I wanted to show how the county organization just picks judges and how the public doesn’t have any say. I figured this is the way to do it.”
Tilzer, who has worked as a journalist and steered campaigns for judicial offices and others in Brooklyn since the 1980s, isn’t wrong. While the mayor has the power to appoint criminal and family court judges, civil court judges in the five boroughs are elected. Terms run ten years. In overwhelmingly Democratic boroughs like Brooklyn, a judge who wins the Democratic nomination is all but assured victory.
And primaries are almost nonexistent. Press scrutiny and activist energy is rarely channeled toward judicial contests. In most of the boroughs, the Democratic organization tightly controls the process, and few lawyers become judges without the approval of the party boss. Any young attorney who aspires to the bench knows that getting active in the local political club and sending donations to party-favored candidates or the machine’s housekeeping account is a prerequisite to getting ahead.
To climb even higher — to the State Supreme Court, where terms run fourteen years and judges can serve past the mandatory retirement age of seventy — requires unwavering loyalty to the party. Supreme Court justices don’t even run in primaries. Instead, they are nominated at judicial conventions that are tightly controlled by the county organization. They then run against token Republican opposition, or no opposition at all.
“The caliber of judges [in New York City] is at best haphazard,” says James Sample, a professor of law at Hofstra University. “There are some very good judges, but the reality is, there are some very marginal judges whose primary credential is not legal acumen but political patronage.”
Tilzer’s five candidates are Patrick Haynes, Isiris Isella Isaac, Thomas Kennedy, Sandra Roper, and John O’Hara, an attorney best known for being prosecuted by the disgraced former Brooklyn D.A. Charles Hynes for voting from an address he allegedly didn’t live at. O’Hara was exonerated in January and is now attempting to sue Hynes.
Tilzer said he found candidates simply by asking “friends of friends” who wanted to run against the county organization’s candidates. Some were easier to convince because they had run for office before. Roper, for example, had unsuccessfully challenged Hynes a decade ago.
The Brooklyn Democratic Party is supporting Robin Sheares, Frederick Arriaga, David Pepper, Consuelo Melendez, and Patria Frias-Colon.
As the ability of county organizations to dominate mayoral, gubernatorial, and even local legislative races continues to wane, the court system remains their last bastion of patronage and power. Frank Seddio, the chairman of the Brooklyn Democratic Party, is an influential attorney and former surrogate court judge who was forced to step down a decade ago after giving improper political donations. Frank Carone, Seddio’s old law partner and the party’s top lawyer, is a partner at the powerful firm Abrams Fensterman, which has a wide range of specialties including real estate law, criminal law, and civil litigation. Since the Brooklyn Democratic Party plays such a decisive role in anointing judges, Seddio and Carone have an advantage whenever their casework takes them to Kings County.
If Tilzer is able to pull off a few upsets against the machine — there are eleven candidates in total competing for five seats — it will be a blow to Seddio, who is wary of seeing his influence slip and remains heavily invested in the races even after suffering a recent heart attack. With no public polling available on the races, it’s unclear how many seats Tilzer can win, or if he’ll win any at all. Elected officials and political clubs have stuck with Seddio’s picks.
In the tradition of any aggressive, insurgent campaign, Tilzer thinks the party boss is breaking the law. On Monday, he accused Seddio of planning an illegal fundraiser for later this month. In a letter to city and state election boards, as well as the Judicial Campaign Ethics Center with the Office of Court Administration, Tilzer noted a fundraising invitation from Seddio asked sitting judges, judicial candidates, attorneys, politicians, developers, and lobbyists to support “our contested countywide candidates.” Guests were invited to write checks between $500 and $5,000 to the Kings County Democratic County Committee, an account run by the party.
Tilzer argued the fundraiser violated judicial conduct rules because sitting judges were invited to contribute cash, the event doesn’t specify what the fundraiser is for, and judicial candidates are raising money with potential nonjudicial candidates.
George Arzt, a spokesman for the Brooklyn Democrats — and a top city lobbyist— argued the fundraiser is legal because it “is not being held in financial support of any particular candidate or campaign cycle, none of the money raised will be directed to any individual campaign, and a candidate’s presence at the event does not signify political or financial support for the Democratic Party or its candidates.”
Given the slow-moving nature of oversight bodies in New York, a decision may not come down until after the primary. Tilzer, though, is sure he’ll get some kind of justice.
“It goes back to Groucho Marx. ‘Who you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes?’ ”